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'April and the Extraordinary World' is a sci-fi treasure

There is a gloriously original, emotionally satisfying, rip-roaring fantasy treat now playing in cinemas, but its main characters are not Captain America or Iron Man. No, the leads in the French-language animated delight “April and the Extraordinary World” are scientists. How refreshing is that?

The latest release from distributor GKids — in recent years the company has brought animated treasures like “Only Yesterday,” “When Marnie Was There” and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” to U.S. screens – is extraordinary.

It’s also extraordinarily ambitious. Co-directed by Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci based on a graphic novel by Jacques Tardi, “April” falls squarely under the steampunk umbrella. And it has the flourishes that make this sci-fi subgenre so fun. Think serums and kidnapped scientists, twin Eiffel Towers, vegetation on the moon, and lizards with robot bodies.

The setting is an alternate reality France, one ruled by the Napoleon V. (We discover the important fate of Napoleon IV in the film’s first scenes.)

This is a grim, sooty world, one with a single remaining tree and a major problem: scientists have been disappearing for decades. As a result, many of our greatest inventions never came to pass. Coal powers all, and a mysterious “ultimate serum” seems to hold the key to the future.

Unfortunately, that serum disappeared along with the scientist parents and grandfather of young April. This tragic opening accomplishes some wonderful world-building, giving us a view of this particular Paris.

Fast-forward 10 years and an older April (voiced by the great Oscar-winner Marion Cottillard) is continuing her family’s research, while also searching for the grandfather she hopes may still be alive. Joined by a smart-aleck police informant named Julius and her talking cat Darwin (the film’s smartest, wittiest creation), she eventually finds her grandfather.

Pops, voiced by the legendary Jean Rochefort, is a delightful quasi-mad scientist, and with his help April discovers a shocking truth about her parents and the real fate of the world’s scientists. Yes, it involves talking, half-robotic lizards.

Forcing April to spend so much of the film in a constant pursuit for her family makes the character a bit less interesting than one might have hoped. And at least 15 to 20 minutes could have been sheared from the 106-minute running time; the last hour, especially, would benefit from a trim.

But the imagery is stupendous, the vocal work from Cottillard and Rochefort is delightful, and the surprises are genuinely surprising.

The animation and adventurous story betray the clear influence of Hergé’s Tintin comics, and in many ways, its mix of action, danger and derring-do feels close to what Steven Spielberg sought in his big-screen Tintin adaptation. While entertaining enough, the master’s 2011 film never quite pulled it off. “April and the Extraordinary World,” however, captures the adolescent thrills and planet-in-peril crises of the finest Tintin stories.

This makes “April” a fine choice for discerning tweens and young teenagers. There are some very dark moments — the film’s foreign title, “April and the Twisted World,” is much more ominous than the American title — especially those involving the lizards.

While the alternate reality imagined by “April” is certainly a somber one, the concept that scientific discovery is the planet’s most desirable resource is genuinely uplifting. While certainly somber, then, “April and the Extraordinary World” is a more life-affirming experience than any recent superhero flick.

That it also features a smart, tough female lead, the cleverest use of a snow globe in cinema since “Citizen Kane,” and that talking cat makes it even harder to resist. Bravo to directors Desmares and Ekinci for a truly unique piece of animated cinema.

MOVIE REVIEW

“April and the Extraordinary World”

3.5 stars (out of 4)

With the voices of: Marion Cotillard, Philippe Katerine, Jean Rochefort, Olivier Gourmet.

Directors: Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci

Running time: 106 minutes

Rated: PG for action/peril including gunplay, some thematic elements and rude humor

The lowdown: Animated film about a brother and sister who search for their world-famous parents who have disappeared.

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